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It seems that being a 5 star freshman can buy prospects indefinite hype as a possible 1st round pick.  After all, Wayne Selden is still ranked 24th at ESPN and 26th at DraftExpress after showing little indication that he has any clue how to play basketball over a 22 game sample.  Selden was only the #13 RSCI freshman, so it would logically follow that #14 RSCI freshman Bobby Portis should be entering the 1st round discussion after demonstrating far more basketball playing ability with over twice the PER thus far (25.8 vs 12.8).  But neither DraftExpress nor ESPN even have Portis in their top 100.

This is incredible to me.  He had a higher RSCI rank than Joel Embiid, he has almost as good of a PER (25.8 vs 26.8), yet he’s not on anybody’s radar.  This could imply that he has some irreparable malfunction to preclude him from being a successful pro, but his tools seem fine.  He’s listed at 6’10” with a 7’1.5″ wingspan and 242 pounds, so he has pretty good size for an NBA PF.  His athleticism and mobility don’t stand out, but they aren’t bad either.  His tools appear to be average for an NBA PF across the board- nothing stands out and makes scouts drool, nor does anything significantly inhibits his odds of NBA success.

As a freshman he is only averaging 13.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, so perhaps scouts are not wowed by his bulk stats.  But that comes in just 26.7 minutes per game with solid efficiency and low turnovers, which is strong production.  In fairness Arkansas played a high volume of doormat opponents in non-conference, and Portis did get off to a slow start in SEC play.  But he had been good enough to hover on my radar as I had him 34th on my inaugural big board, and recently he has started to find his stride.

After averaging just 8.2 points per game on poor shooting in his first 5 conference games, it may have appeared that he is nothing more than a big guy who owns doormats.  But then he went on a 3 game stretch vs Auburn, vs Missouri, and @LSU where he averaged 16.3 pts 7.0 rebs on 18/31 FG 13/16 FT and committed just 5 turnovers.  So when it looked like he may be starting to turn the corner, he dropped this monster game on Alabama:

Portis 14 17 6 6 3 0 6 35
Not Portis 8 30 14 17 7 10 3 30

Portis won this game for Arkansas singlehandedly.  Alabama isn’t a world beater, they are the 112th kenpom team with the 100th ranked defense.  But they aren’t a doormat and were good enough to cause a heap of trouble for his teammates.  Portis scored in a variety of ways: jump shots, transition, cuts, putbacks.  There wasn’t much isolation at all- I believe he scored on one drive to the hoop and didn’t post up at all.  He appears to be a natural at scoring within the flow of the offense.  And contributing 6 blocks on the other end isn’t too bad either.

It appears that Portis’s malfunction is that he doesn’t have a single trait that scouts can latch onto and drool over.  He projects to score well in a complementary role, but is not a go to scorer who will average 20 points per game in the NBA.  He also shows decent potential defensively, but isn’t a stopper on this end.  He is a good shooter for such a young big as he hits 77.6% of his free throws, but his 3 point range may not be developed as he is just 4 for 21 on 3’s thus far.  But he also doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses that will preclude him from success.  He is skilled, plays hard, has good feel for the game, shows potential to be solid on both ends, and he has plenty of room to grow as he turns 19 in 2 days.

I am possibly the only person on the planet who believes Portis makes for an interesting comparison with Julius Randle.  They are both skilled 5 star freshman PF’s who play in the SEC.  Their tools are not far apart, as Portis has more length (7’1.5″ vs 6’11” wingspan), Randle has more strength, and their athleticism and mobility appear to be similar (although perhaps Randle’s spryness would stand out if he trimmed down).  Their offensive ratings adjusted for SOS and usage is close with Randle having a slim 1.8 point advantage.   In a world that interprets draft related information with reasonable efficiency, a Portis vs. Randle debate would be raging right now.  Yet ESPN and DraftExpress have Randle in the top 5 and Portis not top 100.

Note that SOS is average opponent adjusted defensive rating as per kenpom.com.  FTR is FTA/FGA:

Usage O-Rtg eFG FTR FT% SOS
Portis 21.2 122.2 55.9% 0.363 77.6% 103.8
Randle 28.0 113.5 53.0% 0.798 73.5% 102.1
Portis 10.2 16.1 2.1 5.9 10.6 11.0
Randle 14.9 21.7 1.0 2.6 11.6 20.9

Portis has superior defensive awareness and his length enables him to make more plays.  I believe he clearly projects to be better on this end in spite of inferior rebounding.  Offensively, Randle is a superior offensive rebounder and gets to the line far more, but Portis has a considerably lower turnover rate.  Also Randle creates for himself far more, with a higher usage and a lower dependency on assists (Randle assisted on 32.7% of 2’s, Portis assisted on 57.7%).  Randle’s ability to be the go to guy likely plays a large role in his luster to scouts, but his offensive workload is already taking a hit in SEC play and he may never be good enough to be a go to scorer in the NBA.  Portis’s lack of isolation scoring puts a cap on his upside, but the flipside is that he will be an easier fit into NBA lineups as he can make a positive impact playing off the ball.  And since he has longer arms and doesn’t operate in traffic quite as often, he’s less of a translation risk.  In my estimation they offer similar net value offensively, and Portis gets the overall edge due to not being such a defensive liability.

I could be wrong to prefer Portis, but I am not wrong that it is a subject worthy of debate.  Randle simply doesn’t have an obvious advantage once the prospects are placed side by side.  This goes to show exactly how inefficient the expert rankings are at this juncture of the season.  It is insane that Randle is being discussed as a creme de la creme prospect while Portis is entirely off the radar.  This is why the RSCI rankings and early mock drafts should be taken with an enormous grain of salt. The same people who anointed players such as Wiggins and Randle as the next big things are the same folks who thought that Darko, Shabazz Muhammad, Austin Rivers, etc were going to be great.  Give them credit for being right a decent portion of the time, but the fact remains that they are laughably wrong quite a bit as well.  Any intelligent prospect analysis should necessarily assume that this is a perpetual possibility.  Otherwise we are nothing more than lemmings following louder, wronger lemmings to unfortunate conclusions.  Fortunately it isn’t a matter of life or death, but then again I doubt that death is all that much worse than rooting for the next Darko after your team lost on purpose for a season in order to acquire him.